School & District Management

N.Y.C. Chancellor Carmen Fariña Forges a New Schooling Era for Nation’s Largest District

By Denisa R. Superville — October 21, 2014 5 min read
New York City Chancellor Carmen Fariña, speaking to the media after Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her, is moving the 1.1 million-student district away from some of the high-stakes accountability policies of the previous 12 years.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s victory last November was a clear indication that many voters sought a clean break from former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s signature school policies.

In Mr. de Blasio’s first 10 months in office, his handpicked chancellor—veteran educator Carmen Fariña—has been chipping away at the hallmarks of Mr. Bloomberg’s education agenda as she has gone about launching the K-12 policies and practices that will define Mayor de Blasio’s years.

Among the marquee initiatives so far: an ambitious pre-K program for about 50,000 students that has been widely praised, even by administration critics; an after-school program for middle school students; and a requirement that community superintendents have pedagogical experience.

Ms. Fariña has ended the policy of using only test scores to make high-stakes decisions about promoting students to the next grade; started programs for teachers and principals across different schools to collaborate on instructional strategies; created a senior position to oversee English-language learners, who make up about 14.5 percent of the system; and pledged extra supports for those students.

Supporters say that the chancellor, a former teacher, principal, and deputy chancellor in the 1.1 million-student district, has set a new tone for the New York City school system in which parents are seen as assets and morale among teachers is on the rise after years of acrimonious relations between Mr. Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers. The city and the union agreed to a new teachers’ contract earlier this year.

‘A Huge Job’

“She’s had a huge job, which is trying to turn around a school system that had spent more than a decade essentially focusing on choice and accountability as the driving forces and a lot of people in the central administration who were committed to those notions,” said Norm Fruchter, a member of the city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a 13-person appointed board. “She’s had to restructure the central administration, and she’s had to try to turn around the focus on test scores, achievement, and accountability based on that. I think she has done well.”

Ms. Fariña says she wants New York City to be the best urban school system in the country. That’s a tall order for a district in which the four-year graduation rate hovers around 60 percent and only 24 percent of its students are deemed college- and career-ready.

She believes that change happens at the school-building level, with principals and teachers. Her vision for overall improvement, which she articulated earlier this month at a Brooklyn elementary school, rests on six tenets: “rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family-community ties, and a culture of continuous learning and trust.”

“One of the most important parts of the vision is trust,” Ms. Fariña said in an interview. “I need to trust the people who work for me. And the people who look to me for direction, and that includes parents, they need to trust me.”

While some of her initiatives have been praised, others have met with mixed response. Her abolishing of the Bloomberg-era letter-grade rating system for schools and reducing the reliance on test scores drew strong support from some parent groups, the teachers’ union, and researchers. But others, such as the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the education advocacy group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, attacked the changes, arguing that they will diminish transparency on how well schools are serving students.

“Transparent accountability creates pressure on adults to make sure everyone is focused on measuring what matters—student learning,” said Patricia Levesque, the group’s chief executive officer. “No one is well served under a system of confusing descriptors that can too often conceal the true quality of education in a school, especially when struggling students are being lost or ignored.”

Mixed Reviews

Supporters of test-based accountability aren’t the only ones frustrated by Ms. Fariña’s priorities. David C. Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said he expected her administration to be more expeditious in releasing a plan to fix the worst-performing schools and to address unresolved challenges from Mr. Bloomberg’s era. Those include improving outcomes for English-learners, raising graduation rates systemwide and for special-needs students, and improving special education services.

“What we keep hearing is that the plans are in formation,” said Mr. Bloomfield, who detailed his concerns in a recent piece for the Hechinger Report. “I simply am frustrated by what appears to be a lack of urgency.”

The chancellor—and by extension, Mr. de Blasio—has taken heat recently for the absence of plans to turn around failing schools. The mayor, while campaigning last year, voiced strident opposition to shutting down chronically-troubled schools, which was Mr. Bloomberg’s strategy.

The plan for addressing 200 such schools was due to the New York state department of education at the end of July, but the city requested an extension and has until Nov. 7 to hammer out its strategy.

“With 143,000 students stuck in persistently failing schools, the new administration needs to articulate a bold plan to ensure that no child is stuck in a failing school,” said Jeremiah Kittredge, the executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, a parent-advocacy group that calls for better schools and supports charter schools. “Tinkering around the edges of the schools those kids are in is not going to be sufficient.”

Parents a Focus

Ms. Fariña said that although no plan has been publicly unveiled, the city has been providing supports to high-needs schools, including professional development for teachers.

“I absolutely would disagree that there is no sense of urgency,” she said. “The reason I took this job was to be able to make more schools successful, as I know they can be, and make sure that instead of closing schools, we are renewing them.”

Zakiyah Ansari, the advocacy director for another parent group, Alliance for Quality Education, said Ms. Fariña’s decades of experience in the classroom have been a major asset so far. She praised the chancellor for making parental involvement and engagement a focus of her administration.

“We were kind of relegated to helping children do their homework, and that was all the previous administration was willing to have us do,” she said.

The chancellor’s overtures to parents range from inviting them to participate in discussions at the city’s department of education headquarters, to more personal gestures, such as calling them when there’s a birth in the family or a child graduates.

To those who are impatient, Ms. Ansari said they have every right to continue to press for systemwide change. Even her group is hoping that the administration will get more involved in fighting for more school funding and will ensure that a new effort to create dozens of community schools will provide both rigorous academics and the social and emotional supports they are designed to offer students.

A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Chancellor Carmen Fariña Forges a New Schooling Era

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